More Musical Mnemonics: Visual Mnemonics for Sharps and Flats

Visual mnemonics? – for musicians? Really? Why would any profession that is built around sound choose to use a visual mnemonic for remembering some principles that make up its foundation?

It's not a stretch at all, of course. Printed music, whether standard musical notation, tablature for guitars, lead sheets or chords sheets, provides visual cues to remind the performer or analyst of the sounds that should be woven and blended together, and how that is to be accomplished.


Clavinova keyboard
Clavinova keyboard | Source

The collection of visual mnemonics provided here will simply give one more group of helps for those of us who like to learn through many of our senses – or whose visual memory extends beyond strictly visual-verbal memory. The memorizing techniques mentioned in these articles are designed to help you as you learn how to read the music notes or how to tune your guitar.

We all develop our own best methods of how to memorize things, and so not every musician will like every mnemonic listed here. No problem! If we were all the same, we would all be playing the same songs and turning the world of music into something dull and tedious, rather than enlivening, inspiring, and exhilarating. Choose the ones you like and ignore the rest. And if you see something here that will help your friends, students, fellow musicians, or even your teachers, let them know about this selection and invite them to check it out too.


Most of all, though, if you need more tips for remembering various specific aspects of music theory, leave a question in the Comment Box below (you don't have to be a member of HubPages in order to comment) or contact me through the Contact link on this page (upper right). And check out the sister articles to this one, Marvelous Musical Mnemonics and others in the Visual Mnemonics series.


Order of Sharps or Flats in the Key Signature

Even before you know anything at all about the circle of fifths, and even before you memorize BEAD-G-C-F, you may be able to visually recognize the correct placement of flats or sharps in their respective key signatures.

With flats, the first one is placed on the middle (third) line of the treble staff or on the second line of the bass staff. Then, in order, they are placed "up a fourth, down a fifth, up a fourth, down a fifth, up a fourth, down a fifth." Easy as pie.

The interval of a fourth on the staff has one note (or flat or sharp) on a line and the other note (or flat or sharp) on a space, with an empty line and an empty space between them. On the staff, a fifth is written as two line notes with one empty line between them or as two space notes with one empty space between them. (And just so you know, in music the intervals of a fourth and a fifth complement each other; or, put another way, up a fourth brings you to the same note that you would find one octave lower, if you descended by a fifth. B up to E = a fourth; B down to E = a fifth.)

Flats and Sharps look a certain specific way when placed correctly on the staff to indicate key signatures.
Flats and Sharps look a certain specific way when placed correctly on the staff to indicate key signatures. | Source

The sharps are similarly placed, but with two important differences besides their starting notes. The first sharp is placed on the top (fifth) line of the treble staff and the fourth line of the bass staff. The next ones are placed, in order: down a fourth, up a fifth, down a fourth, then down a fourth again (!) – to fit on the lines of the staff – up a fifth, then down a fourth. The "two important differences" are (1) the move in an opposite direction to the flats and (2) a repeat of "down a fourth" in order to stay on the staff.

As long as you know the placement of the first flat or sharp, the others should be easy to place, when you know how they should look.

See the Order of Flats or Sharps on a Musical Keyboard

Another, different method for remembering the order of sharps or flats in key signatures or in the Circle of Fifths can be derived from a keyboard instrument – a piano, organ, or keyboard – even a vibraphone might work!

The order of flats (blue) and sharps (red) can be seen as an attractive pattern on a keyboard.
The order of flats (blue) and sharps (red) can be seen as an attractive pattern on a keyboard. | Source

Use the D key as a center point, in order to have a symmetrical arrangement of keys. (To either the right or to the left, you'll see – in order – one black key, two white, then an alternation of black and white three times before another white key, then black, then the D key again.) Notice the numbers in the picture above and how they move away from or towards the D key. Follow the pattern for the flats (blue numbers), then for the sharps (red numbers). Notice in the above picture that the numbers are placed on the actual flatted or sharped notes – not on the notes as they appear "naturally." That visual image is shown below – same pattern, but showing the to-be-sharped or to-be-flatted notes before they are altered. Cool pattern, eh?


The same order of flats (blue) or sharps (red), but showing the notes before they have been flatted or sharped.
The same order of flats (blue) or sharps (red), but showing the notes before they have been flatted or sharped. | Source

See the Order of Flats or Sharps on a Guitar Fretboard

Another fun method of remembering the order of flats or sharps can be found on the guitar fretboard (fingerboard). As with the piano keyboard example, this is shown in two forms – pre-altered and altered. In my opinion, it is easier to have a visual recollection of the altered notes on the piano and the pre-altered notes on the guitar. But both versions are offered here, so that you can choose whichever one helps!

The order of flats and sharps will be easy to remember, if you know the names of the guitar strings, and the numbers shown here.
The order of flats and sharps will be easy to remember, if you know the names of the guitar strings, and the numbers shown here. | Source

The order of flats is simply the names of the open strings, starting with the second string (B) and moving higher (2nd, 1st/6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd), then, since you're now out of strings, moving to the first fret for the last two flats (on the 2nd string, then the 1st/6th). If that sounded confusing - and I hope it didn't - reread it while looking at the picture.

The order of sharps is the reverse: 1st string, fret one; 2nd string, fret one; then the open strings, continuing the same direction – 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th/1st, then the open 2nd string.

When you look at the "order of sharps or of flats" as the actual altered notes on the guitar fretboard, the visual image is not nearly as memorable.
When you look at the "order of sharps or of flats" as the actual altered notes on the guitar fretboard, the visual image is not nearly as memorable. | Source

Another Great Visual for Remembering Sharps and Flats

Another method for seeing and remembering the order of sharps or flats is a stair-step approach that is so lovely and appealing, I wish I had thought of it myself. Instead, I'll encourage you to look at this link yourself - but only after you have looked at my other articles on Visual Musical Mnemonics!

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Comments 3 comments

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Aficionada 5 years ago from Indiana, USA Author

FloraBreenRobison, I am impressed at your learning by the solfege method! I have seen other musicians use it quite successfully, including in a wonderful community children's choir when my own kids were young. But it never clicked with me personally. (Maybe I was too old and set in my ways when I first encountered it?) That is one reason why I'm eager to provide numerous different memory tips, because the things that help some of us don't work well for others and vice versa.

UFO Alien, thanks for making the trip to read here. I expect you're more in tune (LOL) with the music of the spheres, no? Far out, man!


UFO Alien profile image

UFO Alien 5 years ago from Area 51, Roswell, Over Manhattan, China and SPACE

Very comprehensive musical hub here. I must say that my alien mind can't entirely understand it, but I sure do appreciate good Earth tunes. Party on!


FloraBreenRobison profile image

FloraBreenRobison 5 years ago

On the whole, I don't use visual mneminics, although I'm more a verbal learner and a singer, so this is likely why. I learned scales and intervals by the Solfege (spelling?) method of Do-Re-Me. This subject reminds me of other musical mnemonics like Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge, Father Charles Goes Down and Ends Battle, Battle Ends and Down Goes Charles's Father, etc.

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